Today, I will be featuring the third installment of my complete YA manuscript, The Witchwood at Nob’s End. This text is the first in a series, and today’s excerpt comes from chapter 3.
Note: the whole work is roughly 95,000 words, rather longer than the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, mainly due to the rigors of world-building involved.
Chapter 3: Howorth
There was a library in the little town of Howorth. Unfortunately, it was closed an awful lot.
It wasn’t open on weekends and had incidental and unpredictable hours the rest of the time. It was too far to bike to, and there was no chance of being carted there.
“It’s been a whole week,” Ezra muttered, kicking up dirt at the driveway’s end.
Alex yawned stiffly. They had always lived within walking distance of school and this was the first time they’d be catching a bus. And, since they lived extremely out of the way, they caught the bus extremely early.
“We never had to wait a whole week to go to the library in Philadelphia.”
“Are you paying attention?”
Alex rubbed his eyes and shook his head.
Ezra stopped pacing and puckered her brows. It was mind boggling to her how quickly he forgot things. Then again, it was mind boggling to most people that Ezra never forgot things. Ever.
“The library. I am going there. Today.”
“Oh right. Leather funnels.”
“And burning towns,” Ezra added as the bus—blazing yellow in the semi-dawn—climbed the hill and erked to a halt. She climbed on first, avoiding eye contact. Day one at a new school was always the worst. Followed, usually, by day two.
“Maybe we’ll find artifacts or something,” Alex suggested. People were always finding artifacts on TV—and then selling them. “We could be millionaires!”
“It’s not like we found the Titanic, Alex,” Ezra muttered, scooching lower in the seat. She could feel the eyes on the back of her head, penetrating even through the pony-tail she had pulled back fiercely. It wasn’t just because she was new. People always stared at Ezra; she was, at six feet, two inches tall, a little hard to miss.
The bus clattered through a mess of untidy coal-land thicket, then clattered across a mess of patchy farmland before reaching the outskirts of town. The street lights were turning off one by one.
“Junior High,” Ezra said, pointing. The squat building was just across the parking lot from the high school.
“Well, here we go,” Alex stumbled forward, dragging his bag behind him, and then disappeared into the stream of other fourteen-year-olds. The bus lurched again with a gasp of hydraulics and Ezra felt her stomach knot up. Here we go indeed, she thought. Howorth High. Built more like bunker than a school, Howorth drew in kids from an enormous swatch of back-country towns in a 40 mile radius.
“I hate it already.”
Locker 128, 128, 128 Ezra repeated, scouting the metal cabinet numbers and trying not to look like she needed any help. She didn’t want help—she didn’t want to be noticed at all. That was, at least, her plan for the moment. Unfortunately, when your head sticks that far above the radar, you aren’t likely to be missed.
“WOW! Check the new girl. She’s a tall one!”
Ezra drew her head into her shoulders. A tall one of what? She wondered. She wasn’t a giant, for pity’s sake; no one got excited about a six foot tall boy. Ezra tried to slip passed the babbling mass, desperately scanning the folded paper which listed her classes.
“Bet she’ll play basketball.”
“She’s taller than Jason!”
Ezra didn’t look up to see who was speaking. She just walked ahead, staring above them, willing them not to be there. This was stage one. Stage two would be staring them down, but she was giving them the benefit of the doubt. It was early and there was still some chance that her classmates might actually leave her alone.
Which they did. Until lunch.
Ezra always hated lunch. She especially hated that everyone else thought it was the highlight of the day. In her experience, it was a horrible march through bad food and worse seating options, as fraught with disaster as a mine field. She’d learned a useful strategy over the years, though: bring your books. If you brought books and then sat at lunch by yourself, you weren’t alone. You were just reading.
Unfortunately, Howorth High had no distant corners, no dark enclaves and no small tables off by themselves. The lunch hall was long and skinny, which gave it the uneasy impression of going on forever. At last, a break in the giggling, moving, feeding mass revealed a completely empty table. Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, heaved her bag a little higher, and made a break for it. It was crowded and she almost wore her mashed potatoes twice, but finally she took a seat while the blood drained out of her cheeks.
“Ahem. Excuse me?” a voice asked over her head.
A girl with Barbie-blond hair and a pink head band stood over her.
“Excuse me,” the girl repeated, “you are sitting at our table.”
Ezra blinked. Then her mouth started talking before her brain had a chance to step in.
“I don’t see your name on it,” she said, and knew immediately that was not the best opener.
The girl gaped at her a minute, as if trying to process the sarcasm.
“Well, we sit here every day.”
“It’s the first day of class, you realize,” Ezra reminded her.
“Every day for three years.”
The girl was ranking her—she was a senior. And four other girls were queing up behind, perfect hair and matching accessories.
“What’s up, Katie?” Asked the blue-bandana girl.
Ezra stole a glance behind her. The incident was attracting attention in exactly the way she didn’t want it to.
“Look, um—Katie, right?” she began. “There are five of you and six chairs. Plenty of space for everybody.” After all, there was no way she was leaving now, not with everyone looking.
Blue bandana shrugged and sat down, followed by two more. That seemed to settle things at last, though they scooched their chairs as far from Ezra as possible. Ezra opened a social studies book and prepared to be ignored, but it just wasn’t her day.
“I don’t see why you need a table, anyway,” Katie snapped, stirring her peas with unnecessary vigor. “You’re reading, not eating.”
“I’m reading and eating. I can do two things at once, actually,” Ezra said.
The sarcasm kept sneaking in; she couldn’t help it—it happened whenever she was mad or irritated. Or, well, whenever.
“You don’t look like you’re eating.”
“I’m not sure that it’s food.”
“Oh, la-dee-da, then!” Katie said, waving her hand for emphasis. “But if the food’s not good enough for you, why don’t you go away and read your—what is that, anyway?”
“It’s called a text book. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?” Ezra quipped, but her brain was begging her to shut up. Her mouth never listened.
“Oh I see. A brown-noser,” Katie said.
There was a corresponding wave of snickers from the table, and Ezra quit arguing with herself. Stage Two: obviously, sarcasm was completely understandable and necessary at this point.
“I see. Doing your homework is for special occasions only, is it?” She asked.
Katie didn’t actually seem to get the jab, but blue-bandana girl was now on the case.
“What’s with all the black?” she asked, looking at Ezra’s book covers, bag and tee shirt. “Are you Goth? Or just on your way to a funeral?”
Ezra closed the book so that she could make better eye-contact.
“This whole town is a funeral,” she said, eyeing them darkly.
“Oh, so your town is so much better? Where are you from anyway?” one of them asked.
“Philadelphia. And yes, it is so much better. A person with any sense could tell you that,” Ezra said. She was hitting her stride; all the feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment disappeared under her very best defense. She knew what to do with words.
“And I’m not a person with sense?” Katie asked, her voice getting higher and a little squeaky.
“You said it, not me. But since I have better things to do than deal with senseless people—Enjoy the meat substitute by yourselves.”
Ezra shouldered her bag and made her way back to the benches, leaving the girls in between shock and anger. The self-congratulations were fading with every step, however, replaced instead with the nagging voice of reason telling her that this was not the way to win friends and influence people.
So much for going unnoticed; a large number of surprised heads turned in her direction as she resettled herself—now without any lunch at all. Ezra pretended to read, but of course the text just wasn’t interesting anymore. The only consolation was that, in a few hours, she would be free to finally go to the library.
Howorth’s library had a reputation for being something of a functional antique. The two upper stories looked something like a church and it was rumored the basement looked rather like a dungeon. Alex had gone to football practice, and Ezra had escaped the horrors of Howorth High to stand outside the enormous stone entrance. On the leaded glad doors was a tiny sign. It didn’t say open. It said press on to enter.
“Really?” Ezra peered inside, then gave the heavy leaded glass doors a push, but they didn’t budge. She stared at the sign again. Press on. Was that like perseverance? Press on for victiory? Who were these people?
“Open—stupid—door!” Ezra grunted, pushing harder.
“Ahem.” A voice crackled to life. Ezra jumped backwards, but it was coming from a little brass box.
“Press on to enter,” the voice said, and Ezra noticed for the first time that the old-school entercom was linked to a buzzer—with the word on printed on it. Ezra rolled her eyes and pressed its rubber surface.
The doors swung open with a mechanical whirring and Ezra looked up to see a very tall, very old man in gray tweeds. He was actually taller than Ezra (though slightly stooped), and the long slow strides he took made her think of a large, well-dressed praying mantis. Much like the rest of the building, he looked out of place in the twenty-first century.
He adjusted his spectacles.
“Would you like to come in?”
Ezra blinked at him. Pushing on the door might have been a give-away…
“That’s all right, isn’t it?”
“Certainly,” the man said crisply. He retreated backward, and Ezra followed him into the dim interior—and an alarming sense of scale. The ceiling soared overhead to the second story, and the whole of the interior seemed much bigger than she would have thought. In the criss-cross light and shadow of great brass light fixtures, it was apparent that every possible surface, from the floor to the reading tables with green shaded lamps, was covered in reading material. The carpet was good and old, the stonework was good and old, and the many, many leather bound books were equally good and old.
It didn’t take long, however, for Ezra to realize two very important things about the library. First, there was absolutely no one in it except for the librarian. Second, it was organized in a way only the librarian could possibly understand. Ezra actually began wondering if the whole place was a kind of private hobby. There wasn’t a rhyme or reason to anything, and the card catalog gave only the vaguest clues to where the books were located. After nearly forty-five minutes of fruitless searching, Ezra gave in and approached him for help.
“Quite?” he asked when she got near enough—almost as if he were answering some earlier question. He was perched on a stack of books and thumbing through a very large volume. Ezra cleared her throat and attempted to be charming.
“Ah, hello,” Ezra said. “I am looking for information, and I don’t really understand the catalog.”
“Why not?” the librarian asked snappishly.
“Er—well, I’m not familiar with it.”
“Then you should get familiar with it.”
The librarian went back to reading as though the conversation were over. Ezra bit her lip and reminded herself to be nice. (The spectre of lunch was still looming).
“I would very much like to,” she explained.
“Then why don’t you?” He didn’t even look up, and the little demon of anger made his way swiftly from Ezra’s stomach to her mouth.
“Gee. Let’s see—Maybe because you’re only open when you feel like it,” she said, and then clapped her hand over her mouth as though that would bring the words back. “Um, um—no. I didn’t mean—”
“You did mean,” the librarian insisted, wagging a long finger.
“Well, yes. But I only meant to think it,” she sighed. “Look, you don’t understand—all I’ve wanted to do since moving to this crummy town was go to the library. Today’s the first day I’ve managed it, and you’ll close in another hour. I’ve got just one hour to find out everything I can about Jacob’s Green, not to mention nightmares and memory and whatever else I can drum up on the general weirdness of my life!”
Ezra stopped and caught her breath. She hadn’t really meant to say all that either, but it came rushing out too fast and probably too loud. The librarian hadn’t changed positions, however, hadn’t even adjusted the little spectacles he was looking at her through.
“You’re new, then, I take it,” he said. It was so anti-climactic that Ezra started laughing in spite of herself. And then the librarian laughed too—or something like laughing. It sounded like a cross between a wheezy giggle and a creaking wheel.
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. And it’s not been a very good day.”
“I see. Well, let’s poke about,” he lifted his spindly frame off the books and came around the counter.
“It’s more of a private collection than a public library,” he was saying. “Most of it came from a gentleman of means.”
“What—did the town buy it?”
“No. It was bought by another gentleman of means.”
“Who was…?” Ezra half-expected him to say he owned all the books. But he pointed to the brass plate above one shelf.
“Douglas Howorth,” he said. “In 1898.”
Ezra stared at the plaque.
“You’re kidding—these books ought to be in a museum!”
The praying mantis looked at her over his spectacles and harrumphed.
“This is a museum,” he said.
He waved her apology away and continued down the rack, tracing the spines with his finger.
“Here you are,” he said, handing her a dusty volume. And another. Ezra followed behind him, taking books until she thought she might fall over.
“These are all about Jacob’s Green?” she asked, sitting the stack on one of the tables.
“No. But they are all interesting. You wanted something about memory and nightmares, yes? What precisely were you thinking of?”
Ezra wasn’t sure how to answer. She chewed the end of her thumb with crossed brows.
“If two people had the same dream on the same night, what would you call it?”
“Are you being funny?”
“I am trying,” the librarian admitted. He was so very strange that Ezra smiled, and he smiled back.
She was starting to like him.